We could all be mathier

by September 12, 2010

Math, like art, is one of a handful of subjects which are commonly regarded as things that one is either good at, or not — and thus as things to give up on almost immediately after one tries and “fails” at them (as Barbie put it more pithily, “Math is hard“). Personal stories that demonstrate that math is in fact a teachable skill — and, moreover, one worth learning — are thus to be valued. Jennifer Ouellette’s The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse, seems an amusing and accessible example of this worthy genre. As Ouellette explains, her book in fact began as a challenge she issued to herself (and chronicled on the blog Cocktail Party Physics) to watch an entire DVD course on calculus, provoked by an awareness that something important was missing in her knowledge base. From the blog post that started it all:

I think scientists have a valid point when they bemoan the fact that it’s okay in our culture to be ignorant of math, whereas it’s not okay to be illiterate. It shouldn’t be okay. We don’t all need to be math whizzes, but we should have some understanding of where math (including calculus) fits into the intellectual framework– context is everything, people! — why it’s important, what the basic underlying concepts are, and, if possible, be able to struggle through the odd simple equation in a pinch. Per Bertrand Russell: “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty… such as only the greatest art can show.” (In other words: Math is pretty!)